Growing up, like millions of American children, I had an “American Girl Doll”. Before my grandma passed, she bought me and my cousin 2 American Girl Dolls. First, my cousin got Samantha (who my cousin looks like) and I got her best friend Nellie (who did look a lot like 4-year-old me). After that my cousin got Jess (her name) and I got Elizabeth (my middle name + looked like me). We took these dolls everywhere from the ages of 4-8. We were obsessed with them, as most kids our age were.
The other night I got reminiscing about some of my old toys. Different Littlest Pet Shops and Build-A-Bears, when I got to thinking about the American Girl Dolls. They were so popular but so, so expensive. Not only were the dolls themselves expensive, but all the accessories were expensive as shit.
You could get play kitchens, clothes, pets, beds – you name it and American Girl probably sold it for like $200. No shit, these 18″ dolls had little tents or kitchens you could buy and they’d run your pockets. Even now, this shit is still unreasonably expensive:
Yeah, insanity. But they were a huge deal back in the day. So every holiday season, me and my cousin would sit and go through their catalog circling all the random shit they sold that we had wanted. Thank God our grandma and moms were like “fuck no, that’s way too expensive” because I would have felt horrible if they bought one of those expensive ass sets.
Either way, every doll had their own story. They came with books that told you the back story of the doll and they went across different parts of America’s history. I happened to get two dolls that were technically the best friends of the main characters (Samantha and Felicity) but each still came with a book that I read when I was younger. And I already have a bad memory so when reminiscing about the dolls the other day I could not remember the backstories of the two dolls I had. So, naturally, I googled it.
(Keep in mind these books were for ages 4-12).
And what I found was quite frankly shocking.
Nellie O’Malley, my first Americal Doll, was an (about) 10-year-old Irish immigrant in the late 1890s/early 1900s. At that time, Irish immigrants had it rough. Nellie, a small kinda sickly girl, works as a servant in the Rylands’ house, next door to Samantha’s (her later bestie) aunt and uncle’s house. Nellie is working as a maid in the house because she has bad health due to the fact she worked in factories for most of her upbringing. She even says she remembers spending her 8th birthday working at the factory and not even getting a little party or anything. Eventually, she gets fired from working at the Rylands’ house because Mrs. Rylands doesn’t think Nellie is healthy enough to work there. So she and her parents go and work for someone else in order to support their family (which consists of Nellie’s parents, her, and her two younger sisters). In the Winter of 1905, Nellie’s parents die of the flu so Nellie and her two sisters are sent to live with their uncle. Well, the uncle abandons them soon after, and they’re sent to -basically- an orphanage. Samantha shows up like “yo, this place blows, let’s get you out of here” (paraphrasing). So Samantha hides Nellie and her sisters in the attic until eventually, her aunt and uncle find out about them. Then Samantha’s aunt and uncle say fuck it and adopt Nellie and her sisters into their family. Very wholesome ending.
Between having shit health from working in a factory to having both your parents die of the flu and getting sent to an absent uncle and then an orphanage, I don’t know if any other American Girl Doll had such a messed up backstory as Nellie does.
Elizabeth and Felicity’s story was like “Felicity’s family are patriots and Elizabeth’s are loyalists!” Meanwhile, Nellie and Samantha’s story is “Samantha, whose parents are dead, has a great life as an American girl in the 1900s, meanwhile, her best friend’s parents are also dead but she has to work in the factories while being seen as a second class citizen all in order to support her two sisters and stop them from getting split up”.
I was 6 years old, I didn’t know what child labor laws were. I know they’re trying to be relevant with the times but Jesus did we have to kill everyone’s parents? That fictional 10-year-old didn’t need to have every facet of her life obliterated. Not to mention, like I said before, these books were for kids. I’m not one to censor the truth from kids’ but maybe give them, I don’t know, a little hope.
I was absolutely flabbergasted walking into that one because I had no idea it was that bad. Once again, I was young and my mom probably skipped over the terrible parts while helping me read so I was very caught off guard reading the wiki page at 3am. I still have my dolls in the back of my closet. Nellie is down to one leg as if her life wasn’t rough enough. I still have all their clothes but I don’t know if I have these books. I want to go back and re-read them so badly, partially for nostalgia, partially to see what the fuck was going down in them. I will never step foot in another American Girl Doll store though because last time I did some posh-ass punk (she was probably like 8) called me a peasant so fuck that, I’ll never go back.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this nearly 1,000-word blog about the fucked up backstory of Nellie O’Malley, the American Girl Doll. If you had one, which American Girl did you have as a kid? Did their story traumatize you as much as Nellie’s did me? Let me know on Twitter.
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